If you support Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick's bid for reelection, stay away from annkirkpatrick.com. The site might greet visitors with a welcoming photo of the Arizona congresswoman and a screaming "Kirkpatrick for Congress" logo, but that design belies its true agenda.
Funded and created by the Republican Party's congressional campaign wing, the site's true aim is in the fine print: to defeat Kirkpatrick, described as "a huge embarrassment to Arizona."
The National Republican Congressional Committee bought up hundreds of URLs ahead of the 2014 election cycle and has created nearly 20 websites appearing to support Democratic candidates in all but the small print, a spokesman for the campaign confirmed Thursday.
The websites include donation forms that accept credit cards and encourage viewers to contribute up to $500, but instead of money going to the Democratic candidates, it goes to the NRCC.
The NRCC rolled out the first such site in August, targeting Sean Eldridge, who is facing a tough race in New York’s 19th district. Since then, the organization has created mock campaign sites for 17 other candidates, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Alex Sink, a candidate for Florida’s 13th district.
One Sink supporter was so confused while visiting the NRCC's mock website that he mistakenly donated to the Republican committee instead of giving to the Sink campaign, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The NRCC said it would refund anyone who donated mistakenly.
A spokesman for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), one of the candidates targeted by the NRCC campaign, said it's important to draw a disctinction between satire and deception.
"I've certainly seen a lot of parody campaigns -- websites and Twitter accounts -- and I think that satire is a part of our culture," he said. "But just actually trying to make people think you are somebody you are not I think is underhanded."
Since the websites surfaced, the NRCC's Democratic counterpart has shot back, casting the websites as deceptive and a sign of weakness.
"Republicans in Congress have gotten so desperate and afraid defending their special interest agenda," Josh Schwerin, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said in a statement, that they are now trying to "trick people into supporting them and trying to disown their own toxic, out-of-touch brand."
But NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato defended the committee's strategy, calling the Democratic candidates' official websites "deceptive" for omitting support for President Obama's policies. He also dismissed concerns that the sites were misleading, characterizing the language contained in the websites as "clearly negative."
"I think they are crystal clear about the perspective they are coming from," he said. "And the Democrats don't want this information out there. Therefore, they're freaking out about them."
Although Scarpinato said the websites do not violate Federal Election Commission rules, at least one campaign law expert disagrees. Paul S. Ryan, a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said the sites violate an FEC regulation created in the '90s. The rule prohibits non-candidate committees, such as the NRCC, from using a candidate's name in headlines, titles and letterheads unless the use demonstrates clear opposition to the candidate.
"These websites are on the opposite end of the spectrum," Ryan said. "A name preceding the term 'for Congress' is textbook pro-candidate advocacy."
The FEC, Ryan predicted, would not find the websites consistent with the regulation but said the commission is often slow to act and has developed a reputation "of not being a very strong enforcer."
As the 2014 cycle kicks into full swing, Scarpinato said the NRCC will continue generating the fake websites, saying the organization now owns "hundreds of URLs that the Democrats chose not to purchase."
[For the Record, Feb. 8, 6:22 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).]